- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 24, 2002

In its Oct. 18 official rejection of the U.S. Bishops' proposals pertaining to sexual abuse, Vatican bureaucrats sent a disturbing message to Catholics everywhere: Child sexual abuse is no big deal. By obfuscating and minimizing the rape and sodomy of Catholic school children and other faithful, the Vatican now seeks to delay, and ultimately kill, any meaningful reforms that would protect American children.
The decision by the Vatican is akin to calling 911 when your house has been set on fire and being told by the fire department: "While we stand by you after this horrible crime, we must form a commission to further review the case before we come to extinguish the blaze."
In June, by a near-unanimous vote, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took tepid steps toward bringing about reforms in the church. Most notably, the "Dallas Charter" required allegations of abuse to be reported to secular law-enforcement authorities and it instituted a so-called one-strike and you're out policy against felonious, child-molesting priests.
The Dallas Charter was fatally flawed before the ink was dry in June, however. For starters, it provides no enforcement mechanism to remove bishops who choose not to abide by the policy.
Furthermore, the measure allows many known priest pedophiles to retain the sacrament of ordination and the title "Father" a key tool that is used by predators to continue to prey on children.
It is bad enough that the Vatican did not call for revisions in these areas to strengthen the charter. Instead, the Vatican proposes to carve the heart out of an already weak child-protection document. What bugs the Vatican most about the Dallas Charter is that hierarchical, clerical authority is in question.
The Vatican wants to find ways to make exceptions to removing some priests from the ministry, citing the need for "forgiveness" and "redemption." While it might be somehow noble to forgive a child rapist, it is extremely poor judgment at best to return such a priest to ministry, particularly if he has any possible access to children.
The Dallas Charter calls for Diocesan-based review boards, the majority of whose members are comprised of lay people, to review allegations. This reasonable and sensible approach runs counter to the church's top-down management style, and now the status of these boards is in question and they might not last the rest of this year.
The Vatican also wants more explicit definitions of what constitutes "sexual abuse." They thus want to "Monica Lewinsky-ize" the current crisis, by having theologians and church officials consider troubling, equivocating and graphic questions such as: "If a priest just masturbates in front of a child is it abuse? Or does actual sexual contact have to occur?"
American Catholics, and all others concerned about the protection of children, should expect and demand more from the oldest Christian church in the world. The way to get around the Vatican's diddling and indifference as well as a new joint Vatican and American Bishops "mixed commission" being formed to "fix" the Dallas Charter is to strengthen laws in all 50 states, the District and nationally to protect children.
For starters, the church like all other institutions shouldbe mandated by law to report known or suspected incidents of abuse tolaw-enforcement authorities. There should be no criminal statute of limitations on child abuse. Victims of these felonious crimes suffer the consequences for life, and offenders almost always prey on more than one child, particularly when bishops provide them the access to do so.
There should also be no statute of limitations on when child-sex abuse victims, whether from priests or others, are able to seek civil damages.
The reality is that when the American Catholic Church knows it stands to be criminally prosecuted, and more accountable to regular Catholics as well as clergy sexual-abuse victims, both it and the Vatican will finally take necessary and highly reasonable steps to protect children.
It is troubling that the initial reaction of American Bishops to the Vatican's criticism of their Dallas Charter is mumbled agreement and acquiescence. Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that Gov. Frank Keating and prominent members of a review board established to oversee the implementation of the Dallas Charter have said they are "comforted" by the Vatican's actions.
The time is now for Catholics whose outrage about these crimes and concern for victims caused the bishops to act in the first place to redraw a line in the sand. The morally clear and strong message they sent earlier this year to the American Bishops and Vatican bureaucrats must be repeated: "Enough is enough."
There must be no compromise when it comes to protecting children. Christ himself would demand this. Were he physically in Rome today he would throw the bureaucrats out of the Vatican, much as he threw the money-changers out of the temple.

Paul Steidler and Mark Serrano are members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (www.survivorsnetwork.org).

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